While most people associate Albert Einstein with E=mc², the man was much more than just a creator of equations.
"Einstein: His Life and Universe" paints a portrait of a prodigy, from his childhood dislike for learning to his extraordinary research to his work late in life. Walter Isaacson, the acclaimed biographer who also profiled Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger, writes about Einstein in the context of his time, paying as much attention to his personality as to his findings.
With unprecedented insight, "Einstein" goes beyond the famous equation to illustrate a legendary genius.
The Light-Beam Rider
I promise you four papers," the young patent examiner wrote his friend. The letter would turn out to bear some of the most significant tidings in the history of science, but its momentous nature was masked by an impish tone that was typical of its author. He had, after all, just addressed his friend as "you frozen whale" and apologized for writing a letter that was "inconsequential babble." Only when he got around to describing the papers, which he had produced during his spare time, did he give some indication that he sensed their significance.
"The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary," he explained. Yes, it was indeed revolutionary. It argued that light could be regarded not just as a wave but also as a stream of tiny particles called quanta. The implications that would eventually arise from this theory -- a cosmos without strict causality or certainty -- would spook him for the rest of his life.
"The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms." Even though the very existence of atoms was still in dispute, this was the most straightforward of the papers, which is why he chose it as the safest bet for his latest attempt at a doctoral thesis. He was in the process of revolutionizing physics, but he had been repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to win an academic job or even get a doctoral degree, which he hoped might get him promoted from a third- to a second-class examiner at the patent office. The third paper explained the jittery motion of microscopic particles in liquid by using a statistical analysis of random collisions. In the process, it established that atoms and molecules actually exist.
"The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is an electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time." Well, that was certainly more than inconsequential babble. Based purely on thought experiments -- performed in his head rather than in a lab -- he had decided to discard Newton's concepts of absolute space and time. It would become known as the Special Theory of Relativity.
What he did not tell his friend, because it had not yet occurred to him, was that he would produce a fifth paper that year, a short addendum to the fourth, which posited a relationship between energy and mass. Out of it would arise the best-known equation in all of physics: E=mc2.